By Ophelie Namiech, senior advisor in humanitarian affairs**
While the COVID-19 pandemic is raging around the globe, another yet more silent tragedy is unfolding in front of our eyes.
Violence against women and girls is bursting everywhere.
Prior to the virus, 30% of women in a relationship experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence from their partners during their lifetime.
The gloomy reality of violence against women and girls is now exponentially soaring due to the current global health crisis.
Since early April, half of the world’s population has been on lock-down. This means that at least 30% of women in partnerships are currently isolated with potentially abusive partners.
Global crises seriously undercut access to basic needs and fuel levels of anxiety. As such, emergencies are known to have direct repercussions on domestic violence. For instance, in contexts where women are primarily responsible for taking care of their families, they may find themselves struggling to address the food needs of the households, and therefore face higher risks of domestic violence.[i] In developing countries, because of these additional burdens, women from rural areas tend to walk longer distances to find firewood, water and food, hence putting themselves at higher risk of assault.[ii]
The economic hardship and uncertainty associated with global pandemics – including competition over resources and reduced opportunities – may force families to adopt extreme coping mechanisms, including child labor, child trafficking, early marriages and transactional sex, especially in locations with pre-existing structural inequalities.[iii] The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa left thousands of orphans at increased risk of exploitation.[iv] Likewise, during DRC’s Ebola pandemic, community members reported that people resorted to commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls to address basic subsistence needs.[v]
Despite these worrying trends, women and girls around the globe are currently facing fundamental barriers to seeking help.
Constraints of social distancing and confinement have weakened traditional family and social support mechanisms. Additionally, overwhelmed health facilities are limited in their ability to provide life-saving care to women experiencing violence.
In humanitarian settings, specifically, movement restrictions further prevent women and girls from accessing vital face-to-face support. Equally, given the existing gender digital divide in the Global South, women and girls may not be able to safely and equally access life-saving online information and services.[vi]
What should be done?
Strategies aimed at combating Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) must be fully integrated into COVID-19 national and international responses:
Harnessing technologies and innovation: NGOs, the donor community, UN agencies and the private sector should partner and explore how technologies and innovative remote initiatives can safely and ethically help address the current needs of women and girls – without creating further divides nor exacerbating existing inequalities.
Promoting genuine community leadership: In a time when many humanitarian practitioners cannot access the most vulnerable communities, we should (finally) realize that investing in existing local capacities, assets and solutions is the only genuine and meaningful way to achieve true resilience.
Women groups and national organizations should be supported to maximize pre-existing local support mechanisms and networks. We can learn a great deal from women and community-based associations which use their strengths and coping mechanisms to develop innovative and culturally accepted solutions. Likewise, such groups can support emergency livelihoods strategies to help women and their families cope with the loss of income, food insecurity and economic shocks. For instance, women groups worldwide were the first to locally produce and sell protective masks.
Providing safe access to services in emergencies: Agencies and governments must ensure that safe places as well as medical and psychosocial support mechanisms remain available for women and girls, with specific considerations given to marginalized groups such as: displaced populations, single mothers, GBV survivors, the elderly, people with disabilities, LGBTIQ persons, people living with HIV, etc.
Good practices have emerged. For instance, in a number of countries, a specific ‘code word’ signals to pharmacies to contact the relevant authorities and ‘pop up’ centers were established in grocery stores for women seeking help. [vii]
Additionally, health workers and emergency respondents should be trained to use SGBV referral pathways, and identify and work with survivors.[viii]
Mainstreaming SGBV: Organizations which are usually not working on SGBV should partner with experts to make sure their programs integrate protection mechanisms [ix] including key messages on safety and well-being and safe referral channels[x].
Involving men: Finally, it is equally crucial to create mechanisms helping men deal with increased stress and uncertainty, and to address harmful masculinities accentuated by the COVID-19.
Violence against women is a grave human rights violation, with gigantic social, economic and political repercussions on individuals, families, communities and society as a whole.
Moreover, the economic cost of violence against women is estimated to be US$1.5 trillion. This number is likely to soar and will undoubtedly slow down the world’s economic recovery.
As such, we have a moral responsibility, as governments, humanitarian agencies, practitioners and service providers, not to forget the millions of women and girls currently at risk of, and/or surviving, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence around the world. We can and should act now to prevent irreversible consequences.
** Ophelie Namiech is the co-managing director of Mindset-PCS (People-Centered Solutions) – an advisory firm focusing on best practices in humanitarian-development nexus. She has extensive experience in designing and implementing integrated and community-led GBV responses in emergencies and GBV mainstreaming strategies.
[i]. UN Women, COVID-19 and ending violence against women and girls, Brief, April 2020
[ii] UNOCHA, Humanitarian Needs Overview, 2020.
[iii] UNGA A/70/723. Protecting Humanity from Future Health Crises: Report of the High-Level Panel on the Global Response to Health Crises; UNICEF Helpdesk, “GBV in Emergencies: Emergency Responses to Public Health Outbreaks,” September 2018, p. 2; IASC (2015). Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action: Food Security and Agriculture, in UN Women.
[iv] Catherine Z. Worsnop, “The Disease Outbreak-Human Trafficking Connection: A Missed Opportunity”, Vol. 17, No.3, June 2019, in Health security.
[v] IRC, Women and girls in DRC facing an increased risk of violence and higher exposure to Ebola since start of the outbreak, Press release, 2019.
[vi] According to GSMA’s Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020, compared to 85% of men, 74% of women in Sub-Sahara Africa owns a mobile phone, of which 35% use mobile network compared to 56% of men. This gap is further exacerbated in humanitarian settings (e.g. camps for displaced populations), source: GSMA, Mobile Gender Gap Report, 2020.
[vii] UNICEF Blog, Five ways governments are responding to violence against women and children during COVID-19, 18 April 2020.
[viii] GBV Area of Responsibility (AOR), Asia and Pacific, The COVID-19 Outbreak and Gender: Key Advocacy Points from Asia and the Pacific, 11 March 2020.
[ix] IASC, Identifying & Mitigating Gender-based Violence Risks within the COVID-19 Response (guidelines), 6 April 2020.
[x] GBV guidelines (Pocket guide), How to support survivors of gender-based violence when a GBV actor is not available in your area: A step-by-step Pocket Guide for humanitarian practitioners version 2.0.